Asa Gray Garden: A 21st Century Garden for a 19th Century Botanist

Celebrating the distinguished career of Asa Gray—considered by many to be the most important American botanist of the 19th century—the Asa Gray Garden is one of the first spaces that greets visitors to Mount Auburn Cemetery. It sets the stage for the unfolding vistas, landscape specimens, and monuments that wait beyond the cemetery gates.  An essential element of Mount Auburn’s entry precinct, the garden serves together with the Egyptian Revival Gatehouse, Story Chapel, and Bigelow Chapel, as a significant part of Mount Auburn’s historical fabric.  

Springtime rendering showing the rich garden palette that is evocative of the Asa Gray story

Springtime rendering showing the rich garden palette that is evocative of the Asa Gray story

Mount Auburn Cemetery is a renowned mix of extraordinary funerary art, set in a peaceful rolling landscape of lawns, distinctive trees, shrubs, and perennials. The Asa Gray Garden foreshadows these essential qualities. The garden design's animating concept is the radiating quality of the space, sweeping outward into the expanses of the Mount Auburn landscape.

Aerial view showing the linkage to Caroline's Path, which leads to the Story Chapel entry precinct.

Aerial view showing the linkage to Caroline's Path, which leads to the Story Chapel entry precinct.

Through ongoing renovation and revitalization, the garden will also once again become an important visual and spatial anchor, bridging visitors’ first experience of Story Chapel and their subsequent encounter with Bigelow Chapel and its new family center and crematorium (the latter a companion project and collaboration between William Rawn Associates and Halvorson Design Partnership). This renewed garden will offer Mount Auburn’s visitors a place of beauty, respite, tranquility, and contemplation.

As visitors approach the garden, they will move through a bowl punctuated by legacy Japanese Maples, taking in views of Bigelow Chapel that are complemented by a newly opened understory vista up Asphodel Path. The proposed plantings will reinforce this quieting movement into the cemetery through the placement of specimen trees near Spruce and Elm Avenue and the selective removal of large low yews adjacent to the existing Gingko and Umbrella Pine tree.  Additional specimen trees along Asphodel Path will add visual effects that lead the eye to Bigelow Chapel and its new crematory, and then further up into the Sphinx lawn. 

The contemporary form of the fountain provides a modern counterpoint to the traditional funerary art often encountered in Mount Auburn Cemetery

The contemporary form of the fountain provides a modern counterpoint to the traditional funerary art often encountered in Mount Auburn Cemetery

As the focal point of the garden, the large redesigned fountain pays homage to Asa Gray and the legacy of Mount Auburn’s funerary art, while also speaking to the spirit of today. In profile and in detail, the fountain is rooted in more contemporary forms; its centerpiece uses an abstract botanical motif to evoke the legacy of Asa Gray’s scholarly achievement.  

To achieve the sense of radiating expansion and movement, the garden’s central elements will be reoriented so that they align with the newly completed Caroline’s Path, leading from Story Chapel.  The garden’s low walls will be similar in material and design to Caroline’s Path’s walls. The garden's existing planting beds will be redesigned to offer more open areas of lawn that invite visitors to explore. These changes, as well as the large fountain at the garden’s center, will be visible from Story Chapel.

As a counterpoint to these open visual sweeps through the garden, the garden's central area will feature plantings that offer four-season interest and invoke the Asa Gray story. These plantings will be extended up the sloped hillsides to Laburnum Path and Central Ave, which bound the garden’s environs on the west and east respectively.  Selected specimen trees, shrubs, and perennials in the garden’s mixed borders will provide dramatic visual punctuation throughout the four seasons, as the borders cycle through flowers and foliage in spring, summer, and fall to winter displays of colored and textured barks and sculptural tree habits. This succession of seasonal effects will be achieved with structural plants, underplanting and interplanting of bulbs, use of self-sowers, pockets of annual bedding, masking with climbers, and good maintenance.

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The goal is to create in Mount Auburn Cemetery a garden of horticultural and botanical splendor that truly celebrates the memory of Asa Gray.  The enhanced Asa Gray Garden will usher Mount Auburn’s visitors through a tranquil space into the broader embrace of one of America’s most important historical landscapes.

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